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The Draft Horse Whisperer

The Draft Horse Whisperer
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By the time Hutton landed at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-1970s, he was working in the woods with his own animals–a pair of oxen, Butch and Buck, whom he used to collect cordwood for customers. Later, he started teaming horses, and it wasn’t unusual to find him logging with a pair of Belgians in the depths of winter in some northern forest. In 2005, after years of haying and hauling cows to market for other farmers, Hutton moved out of Stratham to own and operate his own farm, in nearby Lee.

Coppal House Farm is a property Hutton and his wife, Carol, a middle-school science teacher, have poured the last several years of their lives into fixing up. They restored old fields–barns, too–and moved into a new farmhouse in 2011. With the loss of his father’s farm hanging over him, Hutton has maintained an almost obsessive drive to stay diversified. He grows a range of vegetables for his farm stand and local farmers’ markets, and just this past year has started growing canola to press into oil. He’s also opened his property to the public. Each fall families pour into his place to weave through a giant corn maze, or hop on a wagon pulled by his three horses. In winter he hitches his horses up to a big sleigh for a four-mile ride through woods and snow.

Those horses, in fact, form the center of Hutton’s farm. It’s easy to dismiss his use of them as something for show, a marketing gimmick that makes for a pretty picture. But Hutton is nothing if not practical. He hates inefficiency, and the truth is, for a farm this size and the kind of work Hutton does, the horses offer an advantage.

“We’re a mixed-power farm,” Hutton says. “We have no illusions about the horses or the tractor. If the horses make more sense, I throw a harness. If a tractor makes more sense, I turn a key. I have no problem with that. None. Nada. But being able to combine the best of both, you use this where it’s most efficient. And it works.”

Each spring, Hutton gets an early start on his plowing because he doesn’t have to wait for the ground to completely dry before it can support heavy machinery. And in the woods, the horses let Hutton work without scarring up the land. “When I’m done, you wouldn’t even know I was there,” he says. “The environmental impact is zip. All we need is a space that’s as wide as a kitchen table. With a skidder, you’re spending more than $100,000, and you need an eight-foot-wide road.”

But the animals also add a dynamic to the work that Hutton can’t get from machinery. The old soul in Hutton treasures the relationships he’s formed with his horses. When he was 24, he bought his first one, a big retired pulling horse named Duke. The pair spent a lot of hours in the woods, and it was Duke who eventually broke Ted into the work.

Over the last quarter-century, Hutton and Ted have navigated myriad landscapes and weather conditions. The two have been out late plowing fields on a Friday night, then in downtown Portsmouth the next day, pulling a carriage for a wedding at the height of tourist season. They’ve worked when it’s 20* below, so cold that hoary froths of ice built up around the mouths and ears of his horses, and the only thing they could do to stay warm was to keep moving. “Once you get going, you’re down to a T-shirt in a half-hour,” says Hutton, a farmer who likes working in winter. “Besides, you don’t get stung by yellow jackets when it’s that cold.”

When Hutton talks about his horses, he speaks of them as he would any co-workers. He knows their limits, what sets off a certain mood, and how each one works under pressure. There’s also a reverence in his voice, an acknowledgment that they’ve taught him something as well.

“Ted’s got a humorous steak in him,” Hutton says. “You take him out in the woods, and after one or two logs he’ll want to see whether the line in the sand is the same as it was yesterday. He’s testing you to see whether the same rules from 20 years ago still apply. I have to swear at him when we’re working, because he just wants to push my buttons.”

Spending nearly four decades working with draft animals offers that kind of insight. But in developing that experience, Hutton has also emerged as an important link to the farming life that once built and defined New England communities. He’s an able storyteller and a willing educator, traits not often found in men like him, and he carries the legacy and the heritage of those farmers to make sure their history is accurately told. “I’ve said we either tell our own stories,” he says, “or somebody else is going to tell them for us, and we may not like how they’re told.”

At agricultural fairs all across Maine and New Hampshire, Hutton has worked as an announcer for pulling competitions, weaving colorful accounts and historical anecdotes into his play-by-play. In 1998 he caught the attention of Lynn Martin Graton, traditional-arts coordinator for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. She was in the midst of planning for New Hampshire’s presence at the following year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a 10-day event held each summer on the National Mall. She just happened to stumble across Hutton at the Deerfield Fair and was immediately struck by him.

“John was announcing and filling in with all this interesting history about the horses and how draft animals were used before the automobile,” recalls Graton, now the NHSCA’s acting director. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is great.’ And all the guys loved him. He’s extremely well informed and has an interest in history and is an independent scholar of this lifestyle and this history of farming. And he lives the life and does the work. He knows how to communicate emotionally and verbally with these animals.” So in 1999, Hutton joined some 140 other New Hampshire residents in representing the state in Washington; he served as the announcer and commentator for the festival’s draft-animal demonstrations.

About an hour into the logging work, a sweating Hutton sheds his work jacket. “Back when I was logging full-time I don’t think I weighed more than 170,” he cracks, patting his stomach.

On a good day, Hutton and his horses would have a fair number of the logs pulled out of the woods by the end of the afternoon. But that’s not going to happen today. The seasoned teamster in him knows that he can push his animals only so far. A century ago, loggers avoided working for men who regularly came out of the woods with fewer horses than they started with. If a teamster was hard on his horses, they reasoned, he undoubtedly was going to be even harder on his men, because they came even cheaper. “It takes a real teamster to have the same set of horses every year,” Hutton notes.

And that’s why he’s continously reading his animals, evaluating their temperament and performance. At certain points, even when the logs are tonged and the horses are ready to pull, Hutton waits, letting the animals learn how to stand still in case a situation comes up and he needs to fix or adjust some piece of equipment. He’s got a living to make, but he’s not going to overwork his animals to do it.

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